In Paperboy, Stuttering Comes of Age

I just listened to a wonderful Newberry-Award-winning book called Paperboy. The story takes place in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1959. Told from the point of view of a stuttering adolescent who struggles to communicate with others, this boy takes over his best friend’s paper route which forces him to talk in situations he usually avoids. A perceptive look at segregation which was reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, this coming-of-age story also opened my eyes to the struggles of a stutterer.

Brought into the spotlight by films like The King’s Speech, which explored King George VI of England’s story of his speech struggles, stuttering has largely been downplayed throughout history. Currently 70 million people worldwide are stutterers. James Earl Jones, the booming voice of Darth Vader, makes no secret of his stuttering, but he’s not the only famous stutterer. Wayne Brady, Nicole Kidman, Elvis Presley, Mike Rowe, Charlie Sheen, Bruce Willis, Shaquille O’Neal, Tiger Woods, and Joe Biden can be added to the list of living celebrities with this disorder, not to mention Lewis Carroll, Charles Darwin, Robert Heinlein, and John Updike who suffered with it during their lifetimes.

Treatment in the past has always centered around speech therapy, but therapists based their treatments on inadequate knowledge of the root cause of the problem. I always thought stuttering was a psychological disorder, but it is not. It is a neurological disorder passed on through genetics. Although the research is still ongoing, it “seems to arise from a complex interaction between various aspects of a young child, including the development of language skills and motor skills,” but its severity can also be affected by a child’s personality, according to the National Stuttering Association.

The reason most people think it’s a psychological disorder is because of the prevailing idea that stutterers can get over it if they just try hard enough. Stutterers are told that if they use certain “tricks” that they should be able to overcome their problem, but when they continue to stutter even after learning these tricks, they are labeled as failures. This belief causes a tremendous psychological and emotional burden on a stutterer who is already struggling to express himself.

On his first day delivering papers, the main character of Paperboy (whose name is not revealed until the end of the book because it’s too hard for him to say it out loud) decides to practice some of the tricks his speech therapist has given him. She suggests that he say difficult words under his breath as he does something he likes to do. The boy loves baseball and pitches for the local team, so he says, “pitch” under his breath as he throws a neighbor’s paper onto her doorstep. She overhears him and says, “What did you call me?” causing a very uncomfortable situation to ensue. The mortification the main character feels is palpable.

I recommend listening to this book rather than reading it, because hearing the strategies the main character uses to combat his anxiety with speech gives the story an added ethos. Vince Vawter, the author of the novel, is also a stutterer, and in an end note he speaks, revealing that the story is mostly autobiographical.

Hearing the author advocate for other stutterers made me curious about how stuttering is dealt with in today’s society. Even though stuttering is not the psychological or emotional disorder we once thought it was, experts still struggle to define exactly what causes it. It is not the fault of the stutterer or any environmental or parental influences. Still, the stigma of the old diagnoses keep the general public from understanding, and therefore feeling compassion for, stutterers. Most people don’t know what to do when they hear a stutterer, but patience seems to be what makes the stutterer relax, which can help alleviate the problem.

Early intervention is the key to overcoming a stutter because it may not manifest itself until a child is between the ages of two-and-a-half and five. If they think their child has a stutter, parents are urged to have their child evaluated by a speech-language pathologist who can design individualized therapy for him/her. As with any disorder, the more we know about it, the easier it will be to treat, and those who have it will have an easier time integrating themselves into conversations. For more information on stuttering, visit www.westutter.org. Visit Vince Vawter’s homepage at www.vincevawter.com for more information on Paperboy.

Photo By: Vince Vawter, cover of Paperboy by Scholastic, Inc.